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Principles of Effective Research: Part I

by Michael Nielsen on July 8, 2004

This is Part I of a lengthy (about 10,000 words) essay that I intend to post in parts over the next couple of weeks. I’ve tried to make the different parts more or less independent, so they can also be read separately as shorter essays (or blog posts!) At the end, I’ll repost it in a pdf format, where it comes to about 10 pages.

Overview

This essay is intended as a letter to both myself and others, to hold up in the sharpest possible terms an ideal of research I believe is worth working toward. I’ve deliberately limited the essay to 10 pages, hoping that the resulting omissions are compensated by the forced brevity. This is a rather personal essay; it’s not the sort of thing I’d usually make publicly available. I’ve made the essay public in order to heighten my commitment to the project, and in the hope that other people will find it stimulating, and perhaps offer some thoughts of their own.

A few words of warning. My primary audience is myself, and some of the advice is specific to my career situation [*], and therefore may not be directly applicable to others. And, of course, it’s all just my opinion anyway. I hope, however, that it’ll still be stimulating and helpful.

[*] I’m a theoretical physicist; I lead a small research group at a large Australian University; I have a permanent position, with no teaching duties for the next few years; I have several colleagues on the faculty with closely related interests.

The philosophy underlying the essay is based on a famous quote attributed to Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Underlying all our habits are models (often unconscious) of how the world works. I’m writing this essay to develop an improved personal model of how to be an effective researcher, a model that can be used as the basis for concrete actions leading to the development of new habits.

Fundamental principles

The fundamental principles of effective research are extremely similar to those for effectiveness in any other part of life. Although the principles are common sense, that doesn’t mean they’re common practice, nor does it mean that they’re easy to internalize. Personally, I find it a constant battle to act in accord with these principles, a battle requiring ongoing reflection, rediscovery and renewed commitment.

Integrating research into the rest of your life

Research is, of course, only a part of life, and must be understood in relation to the rest of life. The foundation of effective research is a strong motivation or desire to do research. If research is not incredibly exciting, rewarding and enjoyable, at least some of the time, then why not do something else that is? For the purposes of this essay, I’ll assume that you already have a strong desire to do research [*].

[*] People sometimes act or talk as though desire and motivation cannot be changed. Within limits, I think that’s wrong, and we can mold our own motivations. But that’s a subject for another essay.

Motivation and desire alone are not enough. You also need to have the rest of your life in order to be an effective researcher. Make sure you’re fit. Look after your health. Spend high quality time with your family. Have fun. These things require a lot of thought and effort to get right. If you don’t get them right, not only will your life as a whole be less good, your research will suffer. So get these things right, and make sure they’re integrated with your research life.

As an example, I once spent three years co-authoring a technical book, and for the final eighteen months I concentrated on the book almost exclusively, to the neglect of my health, relationships, and other research. It is tempting to ask the question “Was the neglect worth the benefits?” But that is the wrong question, for while the neglect paid short-term dividends in increased productivity, over the total period of writing the book I believe it probably cost me productivity, and it certainly did after the book was complete. So not only did I become less fit and healthy, and see my relationships suffer, the book took longer to complete than if I’d had my life in better order.

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2 Comments
  1. Look after your health. Spend high quality time with your family. Have fun. These things require a lot of thought and effort to get right. …and I wonder how many successful researchers actually pull it off? The model of researcher I see spends 90% of any expendable time submerged in their research. Fun? They get that from their research. Family? Only on the weekends. Friends? People who are not your collegues exist, wow! Maybe this is because I’m at Caltech, but I suspect not.

    I don’t disagree with your point, of course. I just haven’t gotten to know many researchers who have achieved the kind of balance you talk about.

  2. Dave: I agree, this is not easy to get right. I know a few people who do amazingly well at research through sheer concentrated effort, while balancing that with substantial commitments to family, friends, teaching, committee work, etc. I guess I have some thoughts on how to achieve that, but they’re still pretty half-formed.

    There’s a nice story, I think about Littlewood (or maybe Hardy), in this vein. He used to work 7 days a week. Then he discovered that if he took Sunday off and just relaxed, he’d be much more creative on Monday, and so he got into that habit.

    Encouraged by this success, sometime later, he decided to start taking Saturdays off as well, and discovered that Mondays were even better!

    Thus, the reinvention of the weekend.

    One thing I find striking about this story is this: in theoretical work, it really is your high points of creativity and insight which matter the most. To get those high points it may actually help to take deliberate time off.

    Something I find depressing when viewing my experimental colleagues is the sense that, for them, there are very few reasons not to just pour on the hours as much as possible. I couldn’t do it.

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